Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

High Culture vs. Justice

The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence, and Depravity in an Age of Beauty, by Alexander Lee (Doubleday, 448 pp., $30)

Alexander Lee’s well-researched, nicely written, pleasantly illustrated book on the Italian Renaissance — especially the Florentine Renaissance — makes a very useful if not very original argument: The glorious products of Italian visual art in the period from 1380 to 1560 were created in a sociopolitical environment of extraordinary moral corruption and often for viciously self-interested and self-serving motives. Rightly taking Florence as the center of the Renaissance, he shows in detail how artistic patronage by families such as the Medici, and by popes and cardinals in Rome who were frequently their relatives, was almost always corrupt in its motives and to some extent even in its effects. Patrons were glorified, or otherwise falsely depicted, by propagandistic artists who had little choice but to serve as hired architects, sculptors, and painters. Civic and religious institutions and buildings were constructed or adorned as part of a basically hypocritical and often criminal campaign to disguise the realities of political, economic, and religious power, and to serve its behind-the-scenes masters, who were more comparable to gangsters than to the noble or pious roles in which they were depicted.

Lee gives a sobering view of the filth, disease, poverty, hardship, inequality, and injustice that were the lot of the great majority of inhabitants of Italian Renaissance cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice, Genoa, and Milan. He has harsh words for the elitist Renaissance literary Humanists, whom he depicts as serving as intellectual lackeys for an emergent oligarchic order of merchant bankers of growing and sometimes fabulous wealth, a wealth based on usury, hypocrisy, manipulation, and networks of stealth, chicanery, and bribery. His picture of the Church is equally unflattering — thoroughly corrupt popes and cardinals at an infinite remove from the humility, sanctity, and sincerity of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Dominic, or Dante.

If the picture is very effectively detailed and documented, it is not particularly new: Savonarola, Erasmus, and Luther made it at the time; many Protestants (and Catholics) have made it since; Jacob Burckhardt made it in his classic Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860); readers of Browning’s poems could not doubt it. But Burckhardt ambivalently depicted the rapacious individualism of the Renaissance as the emergence of a kind of post-moral aestheticism that would characterize subsequent Western modernity — the upper-class, Machiavellian self as a “work of art,” with appearance and shrewd ingenuity exalted at all costs, an aestheticism that influenced Burckhardt’s anarchically brilliant young Basel colleague Nietzsche. Lee straightforwardly condemns the Renaissance grandees as gangsters, some obviously so (Sigismondo Malatesta, murderous tyrant of Rimini), some more covertly (the Medicis; Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, founder of the University of Basel, in which Burckhardt and Nietzsche taught), but all culpably.

There is something refreshing about this frank judgmentalism, as it avoids two frequent rhetorical-logical interpretive moves on these issues: a moralistic Marxist analysis, cankered at its core, and now exploded by the contradictions of pseudoscientific “scientific socialism”; and historicist relativism or post-modernist perspectivalism, which supposedly eschew retrospective moral judgment altogether (“different ages; different values”).

Ultimately Lee’s own moral perspective has its own logical problems. In the meantime he uses it effectively against the characteristic sins of the Renaissance grandees, not only rapacious exploitation (and “sexploitation”), grotesque immorality, nepotism, and hypocrisy, but anti-Semitism, Eurocentric racialism, and “Islamophobia.” Only the last rings false: Lee admits in passing but downplays the militant expansionism of Islam from the 7th century to 1571 (the year of the Turkish Muslim naval defeat at Lepanto). He mentions the Ottoman Muslim capture of Otranto in southern Italy in 1480 as follows: “The bishop and the military commander were cut in two, and some 800 citizens who refused to convert to Islam were butchered en masse. Buoyed by [such] recent, dazzling successes, Sultan Mehmed II wanted to use Otranto as a bridgehead from which to launch a campaign to conquer Rome.” It is puzzling why Lee cannot see that, for Christians in Italy and all around the Mediterranean, including Spain, France, Hungary, and the Balkans, from the 7th century to at least 1683, when the Poles defeated the Turks at the gates of Vienna, Islam was an appropriate object of fear. It may still be.

#page#A deeper problem with Lee’s analysis is the fragility of the basis of his own moral judgments. By all means concede the justice of his denunciations of corruption — necessary and even invigorating denunciations — including his denunciations of the upper rungs of the Catholic hierarchy from 1300 to 1550. Such judgmentalism is a great improvement on the sophistry of fact/value “neutrality” in the “social sciences,” including the writing of history. But on what rational foundation does such sharp moral indignation repose?

Lee has some good, short discussions of the moral and aesthetic views of Dante, Petrarch, Marsilio Ficino, and Michelangelo, all very devout Christians. Regarding Michelangelo, the wise reader will augment Lee’s view of his sexuality with the excellent, moving discussion by the distinguished art historian James Beck in Three Worlds of Michelangelo (1999), which concludes: “He is best understood as having sought abstinence. . . . His control of sexual appetite was accomplished by his absolute devotion to his mission and to an obedience to the role he had assigned himself, which was to conduct a moral life.”

Lee, too, wants us to “conduct moral lives,” and he shows how lamentably many of the Renaissance grandees, including churchmen, failed to do so. This is true, but it is hardly news: Erasmus’s great satire on his contemporary, Pope Julius II, “Julius exclusus de caelis” (Julius excluded from Heaven), which had all literate Europe laughing, shows the della Rovere pope barred from Heaven and unpleasantly surprised to end up in Hell instead.

The belief in the radical value and moral equality of all human persons and the “hunger for righteousness” that characterize Lee’s approach to Renaissance corruption are themselves the product of a specific historical tradition whose roots are lost on the historian himself. As the great, polymathic American Dante scholar Joseph A. Mazzeo put it, the greatness and universal applicability of Western ethical thinking sprang from an “astounding paradox” found in the New Testament: the reversal of all earthly hierarchies — ethnic, social, sexual, linguistic, aesthetic. This reversal was perhaps most briefly and poignantly phrased in the Magnificat of St. Luke’s Gospel: “The mighty shall be brought low, and the weak shall be raised on high.” The first shall be last, and the last first.

Mazzeo quotes the great German-Jewish Dante scholar Erich Auerbach, writing in Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929): The Christian Gospel portrayals of human nature “intensify man’s awareness of his unique, inescapable personality”; “the classical division of genres has vanished; the distinction between the sublime and vulgar style exists no longer”; “real persons of all classes make their appearance”; “all social and aesthetic limits have been effaced. On that stage there is room for all human diversity”; “each individual is fully legitimated”; “the depth and scope of the naturalism in the story of Christ are unparalleled.” Auerbach adds that “the mimetic content of the story of Christ required a very long time, more than a thousand years, to enter into the consciousness of the faithful, even of the peoples early converted to Christianity, and to reshape their view of destiny.”

That “mimetic content” and its moral and ontological significance are supremely found in literature in the works of Dante and Shakespeare, the greatest of our writers, and no Italian Renaissance writer even approaches them in power, depth, or edifying effect. But that content, that significance, and that power and effect are found at their peak in the visual arts in the works of Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo, and their Renaissance contemporaries. We no longer really care who the Medicis, Strozzis, della Roveres, or Scrovegnis were; perhaps their patronage was ultimately a case of the “irony of history,” of “hypocrisy being the compliment that vice pays to virtue.” What remain visible, in stone and paint, are the inexhaustibly, perennially edifying works of the moral and aesthetic imagination, what W. B. Yeats called “monuments of unageing intellect.”

– Mr. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, professor emeritus of education at Boston University, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. He has lived near Florence intermittently since 1971.

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